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What is Benzene?

By Garry Crystal
Updated May 21, 2024
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Benzene is an organic chemical compound sometimes known as benzol. It has a particularly sweet smell and is a colorless, flammable liquid. Benzene is a major industrial solvent and is used in the production process of plastic, oil, synthetic rubber and many dyes.

The scientist Michael Faraday discovered benzene in 1825. He separated it from oil gas and called it bicarburet of hydrogen. It is produced naturally in forest fires and volcanoes, and it is a carcinogen and a major component in cigarette smoke. Until the Second World War, the chemical was manufactured as a by-product of coal production, mainly in the steel industry.

In the 1950s, there was a growing demand for benzene, especially from the plastics industry. Out of this need, manufacturers began producing it from petroleum. Most of today’s supply comes from the petrochemical industry, with only a small amount obtained from coal.

Benzene is a chemical with many uses. Because of its sweet smell, it was used as an aftershave in the 19th century. Before the 1920s, it was used regularly as an industrial solvent. This was before people became aware of the dangers of its toxicity. It was once widely used as an additive to gasoline, but this practice was also abandoned due to health concerns.

Commonly, benzene is used as an additive to other chemicals. It is used to make styrene, which is used to make plastics and polymers, and in the manufacturing process of nylon. Small amounts are used in the manufacturing processes of drugs, detergents, pesticides and explosives.

Exposure to benzene can have very serious health effects. High levels of exposure can cause breathing disorders, dizziness, drowsiness, headaches and nausea. If one were to eat food or drink liquid containing benzene, a rapid heart rate, vomiting and stomach irritation may result. Very high levels of exposure can ultimately lead to death.

There are tests that can be performed to show whether a person has been exposed to the chemical. Benzene can be measured by a breath or blood test. Both these tests must be performed shortly after exposure, as the chemical disappears very quickly from the body. In the United States, the maximum amount permissible in water is 0.005 milligrams per liter.

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Discussion Comments

By anon349834 — On Sep 29, 2013

How long does it take for benzene exposure to affect the body long-term? (bone marrow, Leukemia)

By anon222594 — On Oct 15, 2011

The German word for gasoline is benzin, not benzene. Little bit of a difference there buddy!

By anon172165 — On May 03, 2011

Well, people have to come to terms with Benzene, meaning that if your in a oil spill region of the country, probably the best thing is move out of the region, and BP should pick up the tab,or at least fund stricken people of the oil spill so they can make the decision they want.

By anon168739 — On Apr 18, 2011

unfortunately, the government that does not want to admit that the gasoline/oil spill in Louisiana is detrimental to humans. People, wake up and voice your health issues to BP. They are a corporation that doesn't care about individuals.

By anon135573 — On Dec 19, 2010

Is it true that you can reduce benzene by heating up a plastic cup or plate?

By anon91540 — On Jun 22, 2010

The public is not being informed of the dangers of the oil spill. does the epa really believe this is fair to the public or is ignorance really really bliss?

My child is living in this ungodly man made oil spill and the least the epa and the government can do is tell the people of the coast to relocate or plan on dying a slow painful death in the future, but of course nobody wants to cause a panic. They would rather thousands die 25 years from now as to tell the truth to the public.

This will put every death that happens in the future be it one year, or 30, at the feet of each one who decided for me, a coast resident, that ignorance is better than the truth. We may be small people but we want to live too.

By anon67257 — On Feb 23, 2010

Benzene "disappears very quickly from the body".

Does it leave the body, or go deeper into the body?

If it quickly evaporates from the body, then why worry?

By anon36115 — On Jul 09, 2009

Does heating up a plastic cup or plate in the microwave release benzene? If so how much could you possibly ingest from these products?

By anon8416 — On Feb 13, 2008

What causes benzene? And how do you clean it up?

By anon4657 — On Oct 26, 2007

benzene is the german word for gasoline.

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